The following is a continuation of my answers to many questions men have about the “Consent Pledge” I created (for men who have sex with women).
If you’re hooking up with someone (or about to hook up) and either of you has been drinking or taking drugs—particularly with a new partner—you could ask something like, “Do you feel clear enough to be making decisions about sex?” And whatever your partner says in response to that, if YOU feel they’re not clear enough, then just stop. It’s the right thing to do. If she’s stumbling, slurring, or insensible, she needs a glass of water or a blanket, not some hazily-remembered, possibly-coerced sexual encounter.
In guidelines about affirmative consent–such as those handed out to college freshman during school orientations—one often comes across the proposition that it is impossible for someone to give consent if they have taken any alcohol or drugs whatsoever. With all due respect for the intention behind this proposition, I must take issue with it, as don’t think it does anyone any good. That position would have the effect turning all sex that has ever occurred after a glass of wine or a beer at dinner–likely much of the sex in history, since the invention of wine and beer–into non-consensual sex. This is simply a confused position, and I cannot see how it can be maintained seriously, in good faith.
That said, there is no question that mixing alcohol and drugs with sex massively raises the likelihood of unintentionally or intentionally crossing sexual boundaries during sex. Extreme care with your partner’s sexual boundaries–the opposite of pushing and pressuring–must be taken, and an even higher level of communication about boundaries, if you choose to take the risk of mixing drugs or alcohol with sex. This is doubly important if you, as the man, are the one buying or offering the drinks—as is common in many first dates and other courtship contexts.
Drugs and alcohol lower inhibitions–which is, of course, why many people take them. This means people will be a yes to things when they’re intoxicated, that they wouldn’t ordinarily have been a yes to, when sober. When a woman sobers up after a night of sex with a new partner, and her original, sober set of boundaries, desires, preferences and values are restored, it’s possible that she’ll look back at things she was a yes to at the time, and feel violated.
This reality is the subject of much sneering by men (and some women): “It wasn’t assault; it was just sex that she regretted.”
I’m not here to debate that point. But I am here to say this: aiming to make sure that you and your partner don’t regret the sex you’re having, is the safest thing for both you and your partner. And when either partner takes a mind-altering substance with the intention of temporarily lowering their inhibitions, the chance of regret when sober again becomes much, much higher.
In his piece, “A message for men who want to avoid women regretting having been sexual with them,” Daniel Schmactenberger makes an excellent suggestion around this:
“Only take new sexual steps when you are both completely sober. If you’ve established comfort with a particular level of sexual connection, you can introduce intoxicants to that level of play. But you don’t want her to make a decision that she has never made before with you, that may later feel consequential when her discernment is less than full. E.g., if you’ve been dating and having oral sex for some time but not intercourse, and you want to have oral sex again while high or buzzed, (assuming the intoxicant is familiar and handled well), that’s probably fine. But if she feels open to having intercourse for the first time then, wait until she’s fully sober to make that choice.”
Another option is to have conversations about boundaries and limits before either of you consumes any alcohol or drugs. And to uphold those boundaries impeccably in the heat of the moment, for the rest of the night, no matter how much you wish you hadn’t made those agreements before you were tipsy.
Of course, another option is to just not to use drugs or alcohol at all, or not while having sex.
But this is not a sobriety sermon. It’s consent advice for people in the real world. And people in the real world often combine alcohol or drugs, and sex. (I personally enjoy mixing marijuana and sex very much.)I neither recommend for nor against other people taking intoxicants, or mixing intoxicants with sex—that is a decision you must come to for yourself. But if you choose to indulge, there are ways to make things safer for you and your partner from a consent perspective, less likely to lead to regret, and more likely to lead to pleasure and happiness for everyone.
Another way to make things safer is to agree ahead of time on a safeword that means, unambiguously, stop immediately. That word can be, just, “stop.” Or it can be “red.” Or kumquat. Or whatever word you mutually agree upon (and are sure to remember.)
Having a safeword in place during sexual activity does not guarantee consent (someone can be in too altered a state of consciousness to be in touch with their boundaries or remember to use their safeword, an extremely dangerous state for all involved.) But it is one extra layer of communication and security.
Are you starting to see the pattern here? When it comes to sexual boundaries, more communication is usually better than less communication, particularly when with a new partner, and particularly if drugs and alcohol are involved. This really isn’t rocket science!
The point is not to make strict rules and regulations that must be followed in a rigid, contractual fashion throughout the entire interaction, in the same cookie-cutter way with each person. The point is for us men to proactively commit to finding out for sure that our partner is truly into what we’re doing with them, to not pressure them for more, and to stop if they’re not into it, at any time before or during our time together. And to commit to communicating clearly and openly enough to make sure we’re on the same page about these things with our partner. Even if it feels awkward or unsexy to do so in the moment.
These are new skills and practices for most men and women–asking and talking openly about sexual desires, preferences, and boundaries before and in the middle of a hookup–so there’s bound to be a learning curve before we can start doing it fluently, without interrupting the smooth flow of the romance and eroticism. But having these conversations will start feeling less and less unsexy, and may even start to feel positively sexy, the more we get used to it, and the more it becomes the social norm.
As discussed before, some women may not like to be asked these questions. They may feel it ruins the mood or kills spontaneity. They might think you’re less of a man if you have to ask, and that it’s turn off. They may feel, “I just want a man to feel into me and know what I want, without having to ask.” That’s OK. Everyone has their own desires around what’s hot for them, and not everyone is going to feel this new social norm meets their needs, desires, and sense of turn-on. It’s understandable for men to be afraid that some women prefer that a man “just know,” rather than having to ask.
In this case, trust. Trust that these women will understand why you’re asking. Trust that they can say, “Hey, you don’t need to ask all these questions—if I don’t like something, I’ll tell you.”
Let’s make being absolutely sure of our partner’s sexual boundaries the default option. Even if that means we need to stop the hook-up and have a conversation about mutual boundaries, along with our conversation about STIs and birth control.
Instead of “Well, I thought it was consensual, and she seemed to be into it, and if she didn’t like it she was free to leave” being the default option for men–leading to cases like Aziz Ansari and worse.
Guys, in the wake of #MeToo, let’s err on the side of caution to make sure we don’t become yet another woman’s #MeToo.
Rather than erring on the side of always pushing the pedal to the metal on the sexual escalation, no matter if anyone’s even put their seatbelts on yet!
If you and your partner want to move away from this new default of “erring on the side of caution,” towards a more open, free and spontaneous ethic of “You don’t need to ask verbally, you can just keep going unless I say stop,” that’s great. Agree to that specifically.
Let’s stop leaving consent to unspoken chance. There’s too much at stake for everyone. Together, let’s create a new culture of respect for sexual boundaries.
The first step we can take as men, is committing to this Consent Pledge–and more important, putting it into practice, every day, starting today.
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